Guangzhou celebrated the first races at its new horseracing track this week. Punting was prohibited but local dignitaries played up the potential under the Greater Bay Area banner. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which owns the track, will be looking for ways to make its investment worthwhile.
Guangzhou’s previous attempt to get horseracing going in the city is remembered best in the naming of the Race Course Auto Mall, a huge car park on land that once served as the racetrack for the city’s jockey club.
Last weekend horseracing made a comeback of sorts in the southern city, although leading the charge was the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), which held the inaugural meeting at its newly built HK$3.7 billion Conghua Racecourse.
Fifteen jockeys and 46 horses took part in five races, marking the first time that Hong Kong horses had been allowed to race competitively in mainland China, the HKJC said.
There was a crucial caveat: betting is outlawed on the Chinese mainland so there was no punting on the horses at the exhibition event.
More than 3,000 people still turned up to watch, many of them senior officials from the Guangdong and Hong Kong governments. The VIPs included Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, who hailed the track as the perfect blueprint for cooperation in Greater Bay Area (GBA).
A number of Chinese cities have tried to test the limits of the restrictions on horseracing in recent years, including Wuhan and Hainan. But the HKJC has typically tried to distance itself from the equestrian ambitions of its prospective rivals, doubting whether many of the plans were likely to take practical form.
“We don’t want to become part of speculation where people buy certain pieces of land, then say we have a cooperation with the Hong Kong Jockey Club and start a listed company etc,” its chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges told reporters last year.
The racecourse at Conghua is a little different. For a start the HKJC paid for its construction. The plan is to train more of the club’s thoroughbreds there and there may be other opportunities to integrate the new track into the racing calendar. Perhaps all the talk of the new spirit of cooperation under the GBA banner will give the project more political support than it might have achieved previously.
Indeed, the planning document for the GBA published last month mentioned the sector by name, proposing that “the development of horse sport and related industries should be pushed forward”.
Engelbrecht-Bresges admits that progress at Conghua – in racing terminology – won’t be a sprint. But the HKJC seems likely to look for ways of advancing the sport outside Hong Kong that don’t directly challenge the ban on betting across the border. Engelbrecht-Bresges took a carefully non-committal line during the press conference at last weekend’s meeting. “It is not for us to change the [gambling] law, that is something which is even above what the Jockey Club can do because it is really fundamental policy,” he said. “I’m not somebody who can predict the future so we have to see if there will be policy changes or not, but that is not for us to lobby or to push the envelope.”